John McGrath

John McGrath: Jesus Montero could fill Mariners’ need for a right-handed bat

Jesus Montero hit a long home run Friday night. This is not breaking news. The Tacoma Rainiers DH has been mashing the ball for the past two weeks, thanks to a Pacific Coast League schedule that’s finally presented the right-handed hitter with a string of favorable matchups against left-handed starting pitchers.

Obtained in a 2012 trade with the New York Yankees that hasn’t gone well for either team, Montero’s value was touted because he was a catcher. It turned out that, as a catcher, he is an injury waiting to happen.

So Montero was moved to first base, where it turned out he is an accident waiting to happen.

Most pro athletes are possessed of a natural grace suggesting they could maneuver their way down a ski slope after a few lessons, say, or look fairly more confident than a sixth-grade boy while dancing on a ballroom floor. I’m not sure Montero can muster the balance required to ride a bicycle.

What he can do is pound pitches thrown by left-handers, and pound them with the authority that translates into extra-base hits. Two years ago, during his one full season with Seattle, Montero produced a .322/.366/.463 slash line against lefties.

I am pointing this out because Mariners’ general manager Jack Zduriencik, who keeps secrets with the prudence of a Cold War operative, is making no secret of his team’s yearning for a right-handed bat. Then again, we don’t need Zduriencik to point out what’s obvious.

The Mariners’ lineup Friday night against Angels right-hander Jered Weaver included seven left-handed hitters as well as Justin Smoak, a switch hitter who’s “better,” relatively speaking, from the left side. When the game was turned over to the bullpens, the Mariners were helpless against lefties Joe Thatcher and Hector Santiago.

The Mariners were helpless against the six right-handers they saw in the extra-innings game, too, but that’s another story.

The story right now is the pursuit of a right-handed hitter, somebody who can offer what Cory Hart can’t.

Zduriencik signed free agent Hart to a one-year deal last winter on the chance the former Milwaukee Brewers All-Star could return after a pair of knee surgeries washed out his 2013 season. Understandably rusty in spring training, Hart was showing glimpses of power when the devil whispered to him during a game against the Twins on May 18.

“Psst, Cory: Remember when you were fast enough to steal 31 bases in 2005, your last minor-league season? The Twins aren’t paying a lick of attention to you as a threat to swipe second. Go ahead, try it. What can go wrong?”

Hart’s left hamstring went wrong, complicating a comeback that wasn’t going all that swimmingly anyway. Since his return from the disabled list July 4, Hart has gone 7-for-30, with one extra-base hit — a double — and one RBI. He’s walked once and struck out eight times.

Among the charms of manager Lloyd McClendon is the gut-hunch faith he invests in some players and his clear indifference toward others. Hart belongs to the former camp, it seems to me, and Montero to the latter.

There also is some financial incentive for the Mariners to remain patient with Hart, who was guaranteed $6 million this season. Designating him for assignment is tantamount to throwing more than $2.5 million out the window.

But at some point — like, this very minute — the urgency of a playoff race must take precedence over the sunken cost of a contract given to a big-league player unable to play at a big-league level.

At some point — again, this very minute — Jesus Montero deserves a chance to extricate himself from the doghouse he put himself in last season.

Montero got called up from the Rainiers on June 14 this season and was sent down a week later. During his seven-day stint, he went 4-for-14 with a homer and two RBIs. Not a breakthrough, but clearly an improvement over Hart.

Montero returned to Tacoma without complaint. While Hart’s comeback has been four months of futility — he left the bases loaded in consecutive at-bats during the last homestand, which the Mariners began by losing three of four to the Twins, the league’s most unimposing team — Montero is tearing up the PCL.

Is he the long-term solution to the quest for a right-handed power bat? No. His versatility, to borrow from Dorothy Parker’s zinging critique of a Katherine Hepburn performance on Broadway, runs the gamut from A to B.

But in a marathon game hanging on every pitch, when key hits are scarce and runs are precious, the big lug who can’t catch or throw provides the Mariners with a substantially better pinch-hitting option than the veteran owed more than $2.5 million

Call up Montero, wish Hart well, no need to make it complicated. There’s a right-handed batter in Tacoma awaiting a second chance — a real chance — a chance so coveted he’d be willing to make the trek to Seattle on the bicycle he probably can’t ride.

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